By Leonard Shapiro
Special to washingtonpost.com
Tuesday, January 22, 2008 3:43 PM
A good man lost his job last week, and it's difficult -- no, actually, it's virtually impossible -- to defend the decision he made that ultimately led to his firing.
Dave Seanor, the editor of Golfweek Magazine, was dismissed a few days after his publication ran a picture of a noose on its cover, ostensibly to illustrate several stories on the inside devoted to the controversy surrounding on-air comments made by Golf Channel play-by-play broadcaster Kelly Tilghman.
Tilghman, the first woman to anchor the play-by-play desk in men's professional golf, properly received a two-week suspension from her superiors for her flippant comment about Tiger Woods -- she said that young players trying to get to his level should "lynch him in a back alley." As we wrote in this space last week, it was a dumb thing to say for all the obvious reasons, but surely not uttered maliciously by a bright, engaging and highly educated woman who considers Woods a friend, and vice versa.
Tilghman returns to the Golf Channel air this week for the Thursday telecast of the Buick Invitational, the PGA tour stop in San Diego. Other then her on-air apology two days after the fact, she still has not addressed the issue publicly, and as of Monday, there were no plans for her to meet with reporters covering the San Diego tournament to answer questions about the controversy her initial comment created.
I put in a request last Friday to interview her over the phone and was told by a Golf Channel spokesman that she was not speaking with reporters. When I called back Monday, it was more of the same stonewall from a cable network that keeps insisting it produces solid, professional journalism on its Golf Central nightly news show, and is constantly putting its microphones in the faces of a wide variety of other newsmakers in the sport.
In this case, apparently they're going to keep their newsmaker to themselves, perhaps in the misguided hope that the story might just fade away. Memo to the Golf Channel: It won't, at least not until Tilghman, a pioneering broadcaster who surely can handle herself with a media crowd she's very much a part of, at least answers some questions in a public setting.
Seanor, meanwhile, has said he put the noose, a horrific symbol of racial hatred to countless of Americans, on the magazine cover in order to draw more attention to the Tilghman controversy and perhaps begin a dialogue on issues of race in the mostly lily white world of golf. Editors are paid to be creative, to think outside the box, to go where others fear to tread. But a noose outlined against a purple sky is one place Golfweek didn't have to visit.
Seanor said he and other editors discussed the ramifications of such a cover, and even queried some African American employees of the Orlando-based publication, though none of them were on the editorial side of the magazine. As editor in chief, Seanor apparently made the final call, and he has said the publisher who fired him did not know what was on the cover before it came off the presses.
That was another major miscalculation on his part. At The Washington Post, every editor in the building tells people working on his or her staff "no surprises." I'll bet it's a new rule at Golfweek this week.
Quite frankly, I also find it hard to believe that anyone with an ounce of sense -- a writer assigned the Tilghman story, a sub-editor, the magazine's African-American employees, the art director who produced the image -- wouldn't have raised strong objections to something they had to know would be inflammatory one way or another.
I happened to see several Golfweek editorial employees late last week at the PGA merchandise show in Orlando, and when I brought up the controversial cover, they insisted the decision had been made far over their heads. They also made it very obvious that there had been some internal debate, but that only one vote counted.
Seanor told USA Today last week that he and his editors simply did not want to put a picture of Tilghman on the cover. The noose, he said, was emblematic of the rope tightening around her and the Golf Channel and surely would spark legitimate discussion on the issue of race and golf.
But the stories on the inside of the magazine were not so much about sociology as they were a rehash of the initial incident and the reaction to it, accompanied by a woman-in-the-news style profile on the anchor, though Tilghman was not interviewed for any of the stories in that week's issue.
Still, if Golfweek had wanted to address race and golf, there were countless ways to go about it without putting a noose on the cover.
Why not publish a story on the fact that almost 15 years since Tiger Woods started winning national amateur championships, he remains the only African American currently playing on the PGA Tour, with only one other African American on the satellite Nationwide Tour?
When I wrote a similar story in The Post's sports section a few years ago to mark the 10th anniversary of Woods turning professional, I loved the way my own editors illustrated the piece. They gathered head shot pictures of the top 125 exempt players on the tour and displayed them on the front page, making it very obvious that Woods was the only African American in golf's mostly-white big picture.
Seanor and his magazine's readers might have been better served by a story pointing out that there still is not an African American woman playing on the LPGA Tour, and less than a handful of African Americans in the top 100 rankings among junior boys and girls.
Another pertinent story on race and golf would include an examination of all the governing bodies of the sport, where racial diversity is almost nonexistent. In the 2007 PGA Tour media guide, for example, there are 15 officials pictured in the list of employees in the office of the commissioner and the tour's executive committee. Every one is a white male.
The PGA of America and the U.S. Golf Association are not much better at the top, or the bottom, for that matter, of their paid executive and administrative staffs, or in the hierarchy of their volunteer leaders. There's never been an African American president or executive director of the USGA or the PGA of America. And the LPGA has no African American men or women at the upper tier of its organizational chart either.
The fact that Golfweek doesn't have a single African American employee in its editorial division also is a disgrace, an inexcusable void the publisher who fired Seanor might think about correcting, the sooner the better.
And by the way, the Golf Channel -- not to mention the golf divisions at NBC and CBS -- is hardly a bright and shining example of diversity. There are no African Americans in the upper echelons of TGC's executive or production divisions. And only two on-air Golf Channel broadcasters -- Iain Page, an occasional Golf Central anchor, and Brandy Seymour, who does interviews at Nationwide Tour events -- are African Americans.
There are no black producers or directors on the network's PGA Tour team, perhaps one reason no one was in Tilghman's earpiece after her lynching comment, telling her she'd be wise to immediately apologize for the remark. Nor did anyone back in Orlando bother to take out her incendiary remark when the replay of the second round was aired early the next morning.
All of this is not to say that the noose on the cover did not have some defenders.
On ESPN's "Pardon The Interruption" last week, my very smart friend Tony Kornheiser said, in effect, Hey boys and girls, this is the magazine business, and magazine covers have always been designed to be eye-catching and provocative, so they stand out when you pass a crowded magazine rack at the newsstand.
I might have agreed, except that virtually all of Golfweek's 160,000 readers get their magazines by subscription, through the mail. You can't get it at your local newsstand, supermarket, or Barnes and Noble. This was not a cover designed to increase circulation of that issue. It was meant to boost buzz, and it certainly accomplished that goal, for all the wrong reasons.
Then again, I know what a noose looks like, and what it symbolizes to many people, and particularly African Americans. I know that image had no business being on Golfweek's cover. And I also know a good man who made a mistake lost his job last week, and sadly, it never should have come to that.
E-Mail of The Week
I can not imagine how I would have felt if I were a golf fan and had heard Kelly Tilghman's comment about lynching and Tiger Woods -- and the giggling after she said it. That's just scary. It reminds me (I'm 48) of my first year in high school (1975). I was the only black kid in a metal shop class and I spent an entire semester hearing people whispering about lynching the (N-word) and drawing pictures on the board. Everything I have read however, tells me this woman made a split second error. I call it the mouth speaking before the clutch engages the brain. She did it, she apologized, she took her medicine. Let's move on.